People sometimes talk about the church as a family. Now, that may be true. But you have to remember that not all families are perfect. The Kardashians are a family. More to the point, so (at least on screen) were the Huxtables. The Kardashians put everything out in public and have no real qualms about letting the camera see the whole bit. The Huxtables, though? It seems to me that we have more in common with the Huxtables than we like to admit. On camera, everything looks ideal. Off camera, there are some awful things happening, and when they come to light, it’s impossible to smile at The Cosby Show the way we once did.
That’s why we go to such lengths to keep things quiet for as long as we can. When there are problems, we do a pretty good job of managing them instead of fixing them. (Let’s not even mention the ones we cannot fix.) When we identify what Al Gore called “An Inconvenient Truth” we know what to do with it. We ignore it. We deny it. We bury it. Our culture is especially good at it. We’re the only country in the world that looks at major storms growing stronger and these weird fluctuations of floods and droughts and the ice caps melting and say, “Oh, it’s just a normal statistical variation. You have to expect this every thousand years or so.”
It’s a cultural thing, but I would be bold enough to speculate that it’s a more generally human characteristic. Call it denial, call it avoidance, call it good manners – it’s all the same. As they say, Jews don’t recognize Jesus, Protestants don’t recognize the pope, and Methodists don’t recognize each other at the state store. In the long run, though, letting things go unnamed and unaddressed is harmful and destructive. The whole crisis of abuse that the Catholics are facing right now could easily have been forestalled if it had been dealt with straightforwardly early on. But scandal is a terrible thing. Human beings have never, ever been good with scandal. We have made a habit of burying those who bring it to light. I mean really burying them.
Cain and Abel were two brothers who did not get along. The last straw came, though, when Cain (who was a farmer) offered fruit and vegetables as a burnt sacrifice and Abel (who was a herdsman) offered meat. Have you ever tried to set fire to a carrot or a cucumber? The upshot was, according to Genesis,
“The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” [Genesis 4:4-5]
It wasn’t that the Lord loved one brother more than the other, but Cain just didn’t connect as well. His solution was to get rid of his brother, whom he felt had shown him up and made him look bad. By “get rid of” I mean that he killed him.
It became a pattern. It’s all over the Bible. David served as one of King Saul’s officers and when people commented publicly that he had been more successful than his commander-in-chief, Saul stewed on it to the point where he became so jealous that more than once he threw his spear at David (who eventually realized the problem and cleared out). The prophets would warn people that they were on a bad path, telling them for their own good, and that would enrage whatever king was running the show, and it did not generally go well for the prophet. There’s a story of how Jeremiah survived only because when they threw him into a cistern, nobody checked to see that there was any water in it. He landed in mud, and lived until somebody talked the king into changing his mind and they hauled him out again. Jesus himself cried over the city where that so often happened:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” [Luke 13:34]
He was very aware of how things went. It is what would happen to him. It is how things are done. I should say add, “at least by us,” because God does not work that way.
If the resurrection shows us one thing, it is that God does not play by our rules.
God created a big problem for us when he sent Jesus. Even the most faithful of the prophets fell short at some point. Elijah could confront four hundred priests of the idol Baal and put them to shame. One man against four hundred. One man with God on his side, of course. Then afterward he got word that Queen Jezebel was angry with him, and he ran away. Moses had his problems with pride, and Jonah held grudges. Obadiah got mad at some children because they made fun of his bald head, and summoned a bear to eat them.
And that’s a problem for us. We like to say, and we all do say, “I’m only human,” and think and feel that somehow being human means we can be excused from being the human being we are meant to be. But Jesus? He was the one human being ever to live without sin. He was the one person to live totally within God’s vision, spotless from start to finish. Peter’s speech in Acts that we heard this morning recalls
“how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” [Acts 10:38]
A sinless man, however, shows up a sinful world in ways that fill us with unbearable shame.
He could and did and does ask those embarrassing questions that break open our agreed-upon silence. Just by being who he is, he is a sort of truth-teller who says, “How can we say we love God and treat God’s world with contempt and treat God’s children as nothing?” Sometimes he used humor to make us laugh at ourselves. He told a parable about how we go around pointing out the speck in each other’s eye while we have a log sticking out of our own. [Luke 6:41] The folks who were looked down on loved him right away. Those who did the looking-down, not so much, though. And when he was serious, he could be very serious. Just ask the moneychangers in the Temple whose tables he flipped over. Eventually, he was too much to take. The conflict was inevitable, and the consequences.
“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.” [Acts 10:39]
And if the story stopped there, it would have been just one more example of a good man in a bad world,
“but God raised him up on the third day and allowed him to appear”. [Acts 10:40]
That move, of course, totally destroys the effectiveness of our human strategy of pretending that we are in charge. It ruins our strategy of relying on secretive or not so secretive acts of injustice to cover up our shortcomings, because if Jesus is alive again (and he is), then he’s out there in the world still doing everything he’s ever done: doing good and healing and undoing oppression of every sort, and calling our hearts into question when we settle for anything less than the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
Yes, he stands in judgment of us, of all of us. But that’s good news, because he is not judging to condemn, but judging to set right, and there is mercy in everything he does.
“He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” [Acts 10:43]
You can, if you want, see it this way: he is a judge who sentences us to community service, whose way is not to throw anyone away, but to put them to use so that they can be part of something far greater than themselves. He became like us that we might become like him.
“Soar we now where Christ has led,
Following our exalted head.
Made like him, like him we rise:
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies.